Sierra Club activistRick Clewett views a mountaintop removal coal mining site in Kentucky.
Rick Clewett and Lane Boldman spend a significant amount of their free time in the woods and hollers of eastern Kentucky. Sure, it’s to enjoy nature, but more often than not you’ll find them with water testing supplies in their hands.
Rick and Lane, along with many other Sierra Club volunteers and environmental organizations throughout Appalachia, are protecting those beautiful hills and hollers from the ravages of mountaintop removal coal mining – and in the past few years it’s been via testing waterways for selenium.
If you’re not familiar with mountaintop removal coal mining, you need to be. In Appalachia, mining companies blow the tops off mountains to reach a thin seam of coal. They then dump millions of tons of rubble and toxic waste into the streams and valleys below the mining sites. This destructive practice has damaged or destroyed nearly 2,000 miles of streams and threatens to destroy 1.4 million acres of mountaintops and forests by 2020. The mining poisons drinking water, destroys beautiful forests and wildlife habitat, increases the risk of flooding and wipes out entire communities.
Selenium is a mineral that, while in small amounts is necessary to support life (it is present in many vitamin pills), in larger amounts can be extremely toxic to people and to wildlife. Mountaintop removal pollutes waterways and allows toxic heavy metals such as selenium and arsenic to leach into local water supplies - the same water that Appalachia's people rely on.
Rust-colored water leeches out from a mountaintop removal coal mining site in Kentucky.
Rick says they’ve found selenium contamination near mountaintop removal sites in many places around eastern Kentucky and West Virginia - and they’re using that data to continue fighting against the destructive practice.
“We’ve found high levels near the ICG Thunder Ridge site in Leslie County, Kentucky - that’s been our recent focus,” he says, but they also recently took scientists to Dewey Lake in Floyd County. “We tested that lake for bioaccumulation of selenium in mussels and clams, and found troublingly high levels.”
Since selenium builds up in living organisms over time (bioaccumulation), even a small amount in water can increase exponentially in fish and wildlife. Fish and birds are poisoned by eating selenium-laden food, including contaminated insects, fish or vegetation. In addition, selenium can cause reproductive problems as it’s passed from parents to offspring in eggs. In fish, ingestion of toxic amounts of selenium can cause total reproductive failure, birth defects and damage to gills and internal organs.
Even more than the destruction of the region’s beautiful and biodiverse mountains and waterways, Rick and Lane say it is the people of Appalachia who keep them so committed to stopping mountaintop removal coal mining.
“When I first went to the Fishtrap Lake area in Pike County, Kentucky, we went right through a nasty mining operation,” Rick says. “I talked with the affected people there for a few days – that was my indelible imprint moment. That made me an activist.”
For Lane (pictured above at a mountaintop removal coal mining site in Kentucky), the Appalachia people are also what continue to inspire. "These are some of the most resilient people that I’ve ever met, and they have incredible stories to tell,” she says. “They welcome you in and want you to hear their story.”
Rick, Lane, and so many others are fed up with the coal industry’s practices. Mountaintop removal coal mining poisons families’ well water and damage homes. The selenium in nearby waterways even prevents anglers from fishing due to consumption warnings for selenium-contaminated fish.
“We’re trying to make this better, to help solve a problem,” Rick says about the work of the Sierra Club and many other Appalachian organizations - including Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, I Love Mountains, the Alliance for Appalachia, the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, and many, many others.
“There’s a huge problem with alternative economic development in region, you know, what you do besides coal?” he adds. “But still, the coal industry here totally overblows the number of jobs they provide in the state.”
Lane agrees. “It’s a different culture and way of life here. But there’s no reason to continue using mountaintop removal coal.”
For those who want to help, Lane says the biggest help is getting word out about this type of mining in the first place. “We really need help outside the coal fields, we need folks to understand where their electricity comes from, where that coal comes from - and we need them to reject it.”
They also encourage people to come see the destruction of mountaintop removal coal mining. “Come visit, we’ll show you first-hand. The change will happen with people outside of Kentucky and West Virginia.”